Apereo Foundation Fast - Interview with Jim Helwig

Apereo Foundation Fast: Interview with Jim Helwig, IAN Dolphin Award Winner in 2022

By: Michelle Hall


Jim HelwigJim Helwig won the inaugural Apereo Dolphin Award for Innovation, Advocacy, and Networking, "The IAN" in 2022.

The IAN award recognizes creative and visionary community members who promote and propel open source initiatives to meet higher education's diverse and evolving needs. 

Jim has been part of the Apereo Foundation community since its inception, playing several pivotal roles. Jim served on the Founding Board of Directors for nearly eight years and served on the Jasig Foundation Board of Directors for the preceding six years. He has been chairing the uPortal Steering Committee and serving as board liaison since 2008. Jim also served on the Open Apereo conference planning committee for several years, including one as committee chair. Over the years, Jim has also contributed to the modernization and administration of shared infrastructure used by the projects. Jim continues to serve on the Apereo Financial Committee as the Foundation completes a review and restructuring of all the financial and accounting practices.

Jim has been working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for over 20 years. He is currently the Application Development Manager for the Informatics and Information Technology department in the School of Medicine and Public Health. Before moving into this position in 2020, Jim led the MyUW team, responsible for their uPortal implementation. The portal is used by over 100,000 users across the thirteen campuses in the University of Wisconsin System, servicing millions of requests each month. In 2005 Jim managed the project to migrate the campus portal to uPortal. This was the start of the long history of UW-Madison contributing back to the open source project.

Jim holds his Master's in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and his Bachelor’s of Science in Math and Physics Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

Jim enjoys brewing craft beer, running, kayaking, hiking, and camping. While others in the open source community enjoy building digital artifacts, Jim enjoys creating in the physical world through building and remodeling homes.


Michelle Hall (MH): Jim, thank you for taking the time to be interviewed for Apereo Foundation Fast, and congratulations again for your well-deserved IAN Award in 2022!

Jim Helwig (JH): Thank you, Michelle. Receiving this was quite a surprise! I am honored to be the first recipient of the IAN Award, especially having worked closely with its namesake for many years. 


MH: Jim, you moved into a new role at the University of Wisconsin in 2020, please tell us a little about what you do as the Application Development Manager at the School of Medicine and Public Health. 

JH: I lead a team of talented developers that build and maintain custom applications meeting the specific needs of the students, faculty, and staff of the School of Medicine and Public Health. As often happens, the available solutions don’t always meet the specialized needs of the school so our team can helps fill the gap. I should note that we do look for open source options, especially those developed by other medical education organizations.


MH: uPortal has been lucky to have you as part of the leadership team for a long time across two foundations! Tell us what has kept you engaged in the project over the years. 

JH:  First and foremost, it has been the people that make up the uPortal community. I hung up my developer hat many years ago, but I still find it exhilarating to work closely with very talented developers as they enhance the uPortal project. Along the way, I have been proud to showcase how the University of Wisconsin-Madison has used uPortal. I also love seeing how other institutions have been able to use uPortal to meet the needs of their local community and bring clarity and ease to the complex digital landscape students, faculty, and staff often face.


MH: The uPortal community just gathered in Las Vegas for uPortal Dev Days 2023! How did it feel to be face-to-face with the community again? Any big takeaways you’d like to share from the event?

JH:  Having just returned from a month-long trip to Thailand, I was, unfortunately, unable to attend in person. (BTW, I highly recommend vacationing in Thailand!) I did attend many of the sessions remotely, and I was jealous of those that were gathered in Las Vegas. It makes you realize how much richer face-to-face meetings are. You could sense the enthusiasm and energy in the room. Being a multi-day event, the comfort level and engagement of the attendees continued to increase day by day. I am glad that we were able to make much of the event hybrid in nature so others could participate remotely or view the recordings later, but those that made it to Las Vegas came away with a lot more value. Thinking back over the years, the in-person Apereo events were highlights of my year, where many of my professional relationships and even friendships germinated.


MH: A month long trip to Thailand is a good reason to miss Dev Days! Any sneak peeks you could share about what is coming up for uPortal over the next year? What are you most looking forward to seeing happen for the community?

JH: There is a lot planned for the project over the upcoming year. On the technical side, we are continuing the migration from portlets to web components. For implementers, we continue the work of making uPortal easier to deploy. For the uPortal-curious, we are revamping our project website and making it easier for people to try a uPortal demo.


MH: You were nominated for the IAN for your years of work on the Apereo and Jasig Board of Directors, leadership in the uPortal community, and pivotal role with the Apereo Finance Committee, among other things. What are your favorite aspects of working with these Apereo communities? What has made you passionate about working in these areas of open source with these folks?

JH: As I mentioned earlier, I love being able to brush shoulders with so many talented and passionate people. Working on open source projects is usually a labor of love, so the people in the community want to be there. I appreciate the collaborative spirit that permeates the community. Everyone is so welcoming and eager to help each other. And you don’t have to be a technical wiz to be part of this. There are many ways to get involved and contribute, even if you are not a software developer.


MH: Please tell us about a pet project you focused on during your year as an Apereo Dolphin Awardee. 

JH: My focus has been on strengthening the uPortal Steering Committee with an eye toward sustainability. Empowering the committee helps strengthen the community.


MH: Any exciting plans for your Apereo Dolphin Award award funds?

JH: I am looking forward to attending the inaugural FOSSY conference in Portland, OR, this July. I think this will be a great opportunity for people involved with the uPortal project to meet people from other open source communities. My goal is to discuss the sustainability of projects. uPortal is one of the oldest in the higher education space, but I am sure we can learn from those working in other domains as well.


MH: Jim as you may remember, the theme of Open Apereo 2022 was “The Value of Open Source.” Could you give us a few thoughts on “The Value of Open Source” both at the University of Wisconsin and in the world at large?

JH: Over the two decades that I have been involved with open source, I have seen value at many different levels. From the institutional aspect, adopting and contributing to open source projects has allowed us to meet the unique needs of the university community that were not being addressed by commercial products. From a team perspective, we were able to collaborate with developers from other organizations and to learn best practices, develop common solutions, and adopt enhancements. This dovetails with what we call The Wisconsin Idea, that the work of the university should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom and even the boundaries of the state. We have benefited from the work of others, and others have benefited from our work. Finally, I have seen how being involved with open source can provide benefits to individuals. There are so many examples in the uPortal and Apereo community of individuals from small schools getting engaged with a project and expanding their skills as they work closely with more seasoned professionals. In turn, they then become the mentors for the next generation. Quite often, this has led them to new career opportunities at other organizations that would never have opened up if they hadn’t first been engaged with open source.


MH: Jim, thank you so much for your time and all you continue to do for the Foundation and our communities!